But the cash has to be spent so quickly that at least one regional health authority has said it cannot organise the spending sensibly in the time available. Others may follow suit.
The money, which will provide an end-of-year bonanza for some hospitals which have completed their contracts ahead of time, has apparently been found unexpectedly in a 'back pocket' by the NHS management executive. It raises by almost one-third the pounds 39m earmarked this year for dealing with long waits.
The East Anglian region, however, yesterday said that it had already organised the spending of an extra pounds 2m from its own resources and would not be bidding for its share of the cash. 'We had reservations about our ability to spend it sensibly in the short time available,' a spokesman said. North East Thames said it too had already lined up hospitals to use an extra pounds 5m from its own resources. 'We are considering whether we can use any further money, but there is only a certain amount extra you can do in such a short time.'
The Department of Health yesterday said the extra cash had come from 'savings that have been effected on other budgets'. The precise sum was still being settled but was likely to be in the region of pounds 14m. 'It could have been carried forward to next year, but it was felt to be in the best interests of patients to use it in the current year by the end of March.'
Ministers are thought to want the money to be spent quickly to cut down waiting lists, which stood at more than 1 million at the end of September and are thought to be rising. Some of the cash may be spent in the private sector when beds or theatre space prevent NHS hospitals using the money fast enough.
News of the extra money came as David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, released figures showing that more than 2 million people are waiting for NHS treatment or a consultation once those waiting for outpatient appointments are included. Some were waiting three-and-a-half years for a first outpatient appointment.
His survey uses figures from the Mersey region and 14 other NHS trusts and districts to show that about one and one-third times as many patients are waiting for a first outpatient appointment as are on the waiting list for in-patient admission. Although not all these will need admission, the figures suggest that 2.3 million people are waiting for a consultation or admission, against the 1 million recorded on in-patient waiting lists.
The survey showed waits as long as two years for a first appointment in some specialities at some hospitals. When outpatient waits were included, ministerial claims that no one had to wait more than two years for treatment were 'clearly untrue', he said.
The Department of Health does not collect outpatient waiting times, but Brian Mawhinney, the Minister for Health, protested that regions this year were setting targets of a maximum 13-week wait for the first time and were working towards that. He added: 'We take the issue of unacceptable outpatient waits very seriously.'Reuse content